Just think about how incredibly hard it is to watch someone grow old and die. Now imagine what it must have been like for Joshua Seftel to watch his friend Phillip Toledano do it over and over again in the course of three years.
Toledano, a New York-based conceptual artist and photographer in his late 40s, decided to make a series of two dozen photographic portraits depicting himself in a variety of unhappy scenarios of what his future could be and how his life might end. Seftel, a filmmaker, witnessed the longterm project and turned it into a short film.
“The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano,” whose executive producing team includes filmmakers behind four Academy Award winners and nominees, including Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) and Steve Tisch (“Forrest Gump”), had its world premiere on September 20 on the Emmy-winning New York Times Op-Docs series. (Full film can be viewed here.)
Fortunately, none of the disturbing possible fates, like obesity, stroke, desolation, violent death, and suicide have yet come to pass for Toledano. Nonetheless, the friends’ immersion in these imagined scenarios — with Toledano (repeatedly transforming himself through heavy makeup and acting) in front of the camera and Seftel behind it — changed both of them in profound ways.
When Toledano and Seftel first met as undergraduates at Tufts University in the early 1990s, Toledano was living a relatively carefree, charmed life. Descended from Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century and the cherished only son of a French-Moroccan mother and an American father, Toledano was born and raised in comfortable surroundings in London.
His father, Edward Toledano, was a member of a prominent, large extended Jewish family originally from Toledo. Although he initially held a corporate job, Edward Toledano later became a surrealist artist, whose works can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Tate, and the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum, among others.
‘After my parents died, the attic I had packed when my sister died became unpacked and I became anxious about the future’
“I grew up with my father’s being an artist as my art education. I never went to art school. Looking back now, I realize that there really was no other option for me than to become an artist,” Toledano reflected in conversation with The Times of Israel.
The one dark spot on Toledano’s life was the accidental death of his two years’ older sister in a fire when she was eight years old.
“Somehow I just packed the loss of my sister away in the attic and went on to live in this beautiful, golden cloud of oblivion, privilege and luck. I was always optimistic and welcoming of the next day,” he said.
This changed dramatically, however, when Toledano’s mother Helene died suddenly of an aneurism in 2006 and he discovered that his father was suffering from dementia. The son devoted himself to caring for his father until his death in 2009.
Toledano worked through his grief by producing a book of photographs he took during those final years of his father’s life, titled, “Days With My Father,” as well as a short film, “A Shadow Remains,” about the loss of one’s parents.
‘When my parents died, Judaism became too painful to embrace because of all of the memories. I just couldn’t deal’
“They love you without reservation. They’ve been there forever and they’ll be there forever. Maybe a little bit softer with the erosion of the wind, but always there. And when they die, it seems inconceivable, just seems ridiculous, seems stupid,” he declares in the film’s narration.
Toledano’s parents’ deaths also distanced him from Judaism. Growing up,he had attended synagogue with his parents, received a Jewish education and become bar mitzvah, and celebrated Shabbat and holidays. However, today Toledano, who is married to a woman who is not Jewish, is not keen on religion.
“When my parents died, Judaism became too painful to embrace because of all of the memories. I just couldn’t deal. I couldn’t sing the songs and pray the prayers anymore,” he said.
His parents’ aging and deaths affected Toledano, who had recently become a new father, in another way. He became anxious, if not completely neurotic.
“After my parents died, the attic I had packed when my sister died became unpacked and I became anxious about the future,” he said.
‘The attic I had packed when my sister died became unpacked and I became anxious about the future’
Seftel, whose own father had also recently died, identified with what his friend was going through. He was also fascinated by the project Toledano was embarking upon. Toledano told him he was going to take a DNA test to find out what illnesses he was likely to get, consult fortune-tellers, tarot card readers, hypnotists, numerologists and palm readers, and research insurance company actuarial tables. Then he was going to transform himself and become the the subject of photographs depicting all the possible ill-fated scenarios of his future.
“We all have these fears. We carry them around and are taught not to think about them. They are an amorphous, undefined anxiety. Phil has made it concrete. He’s defined the fears,” Seftel said.
“It’s weird, but there is some value to this. It gives shape to the anxiety,” he added.
By day, Seftel was immersed in the challenging technical and creative work of making “The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano.” But when he got home at night, he’d go to sleep and wake up from nightmares.
Observing Toledano transform himself into a stroke victim, a drunk on the street, a wheelchair-bound senile nongenerian, and a lonely, lecherous old man, among many others, could not but force the filmmaker to face his own anxieties about the future.
“It was a reminder that the future is out of our control and that we are all going to die. I’m not sure if the experience was therapeutic or not, but it did bring all this into my subconscious,” Seftel said.
As he filmed Toledano assume one frighteningly pathetic character after another, Seftel struggled to come up with the right narrative arc for the cinematic story.
‘Some people would find what Phil does to be unappealing, obsessive and narcissistic’
“Some people would find what Phil does to be unappealing, obsessive and narcissistic,” he said bluntly.
Seftel found the antidote to Toledano’s neuroticism in his relatable wife, advertising executive Carla Serrano, whose point of view ended up anchoring the film. Viewers go along on the emotional rollercoaster ride of watching Toledano’s morose and morbid obsession together with Carla, who implored him not to undertake the project for fear of what it might do to him and their family.
“I was in therapy with my wife at the time, and the shrink also said I should absolutely not do this project,” admitted Toledano, who gave in to his compulsion to do the work.
To everyone’s relief, the artist has managed to work through his anxieties about the future and to put the project behind him. Yet, as would be expected, he is a changed man.
“I don’t think about it. I’m not in the swamp anymore. I’ve returned to that previous glorious oblivion, but I am more awake now. I see that things are finite and that life can be cruel. I have a better sense of what life can do,” he said.
He’s also gained perspective about the death of his parents. “What’s happened to me is terrible, but it’s also terribly normal,” he added.
‘What’s happened to me is terrible, but it’s also terribly normal’
Seftel sees a similarity between what Toledano did with his photographs and what he is trying to do with his humorous, intimate web series “My Mom on Movies,” in which he interviews his mother, Pat Seftel, via FaceTime from her home in Florida about current events and pop culture.
“Both projects are about finding a way to connect with our parents, a dialogue between generations, and time passing,” Seftel said.
We learn from an episode in which Seftel talks to his mother about “The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano” that she liked the film and was surprised by how open her son’s friend was about his neurosis. She was moved by Toledano’s artistic quest, but wasn’t sure it had been entirely necessary.
“I think like maybe he just needed some mood elevators and a psychologist,” she suggested in her signature deadpan manner.